Local news organizations are rethinking their relationships with the communities they serve, from deploying new messaging platforms that deliver news to overhauling their reporting practices, editors told ProPublica in a series of recent conversations.

Amid increased polarization and a pandemic in which misinformation has spread as fast as the virus, editors in Atlanta, Phoenix and Detroit told us in live virtual events that the notion of local news as a public good is more relevant than ever.

Each event examined different aspects of local news, from community journalism in Phoenix to nonprofit startups in Detroit. But all addressed how local news is keeping pace with rapid changes in the media industry and the extent to which these moves reflect demographic shifts in their cities.

Outlier Media, for instance, empowers Detroiters to set its editorial agenda and built an SMS platform to give residents access to the reporting and reporters. “We understand that Outlier’s mission is to serve those who are most underserved in Detroit by news, but also by systems,” Executive Director Candice Fortman said.

The View From Here: Reimagining Local News in Detroit

Outlier Media is part of a new wave of mission-driven media organizations that are filling what they see as gaps in coverage. This includes reporting on historically overlooked neighborhoods in Atlanta, making COVID-19 information available in Spanish to Arizona readers and explaining how Detroiters can file their taxes.

Editors at legacy newsrooms say they are likewise focusing on building new relationships with their communities and the people they cover. They noted that diversifying newsrooms at every level is necessary to better serve communities and to ensure fair and accurate coverage. “Your newsroom should match the community,” said P. Kim Bui, director of product and audience innovation at The Arizona Republic. “It’s the easiest thing to say, it’s very difficult to do. Especially in a local news setting, especially in a small newsroom.”

Finally, in an industry starved for resources, collaboration was viewed as crucial to successfully rebuild a sustainable and robust local news infrastructure.

This year, ProPublica opened regional offices in Atlanta and Phoenix, and expanded its footprint in the Midwest to include reporters in more states throughout the region (one is based in Detroit). It also works with Local Reporting Network partners in many of these regions.

Here are things we heard repeatedly during our events:

1. The news media needs to increase transparency on how decisions get made

Canopy Atlanta, a community-led nonprofit journalism project founded in 2020, deploys a unique model in which it pairs veteran Atlanta journalists with community members to empower residents to tell their own stories and to combat “media mistrust,” said co-founder Kamille Whittaker, who is also a managing editor of Atlanta magazine. Known as “fellows,” these community members belong to a specific neighborhood that Canopy Atlanta has chosen as the focus for its issue. “The biggest difference is that we are sourcing our story ideas from the residents themselves versus going in and deciding what the story is,” Whittaker said.

The View From Here: Local News in Atlanta

The promise of Canopy Atlanta’s fellowship model was inspired by a pilot program called the Pittsburgh Journalism Project. Led by Max Blau, a co-founder of Canopy Atlanta and reporter for ProPublica’s South newsroom, the program hosted community listening sessions and then coached residents through the reporting and writing process. The resulting story, which Blau edited, was completely different from what he assumed residents would want to talk about. “[Blau] initially went in thinking that residents were going to be interested in gentrification, housing, affordability,” Whittaker said. “But when he actually did community listening and community engagement, he found out they wanted to talk about the aftermath of the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal.” The story later ran on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Though still in its infancy, Canopy Atlanta has proven to be an important addition to the local news ecosystem. “I’ve learned more about neighborhoods that are within a 2-mile radius from me from reading [Canopy Atlanta] than I have living in Atlanta in the past eight years,” said Stephen Fowler, a political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting. “And it’s things that have been chronically undercovered, underfunded and underappreciated.”

2. Meet communities where they are already gathering

Conecta Arizona is a Spanish-language service journalism project on WhatsApp created in May 2020 to fill a gap in COVID-19 information available in Spanish. Even though almost one-third of Arizona’s population is Hispanic, founder Maritza L. Félix said, there is a dearth of Spanish-language media in the state. “When I founded Conecta Arizona, it was just to combat misinformation through the same channels that it was getting spread: WhatsApp,” said Félix, who refers to herself as the “WhatsApp queen.” Since then, Conecta Arizona has blossomed into a multiplatform enterprise that includes a radio show, a newsletter and a forthcoming podcast.

Outlier Media’s Fortman said delivering news via SMS is “the best way to reach most Detroiters.” Available in English, Spanish and Arabic, the news service is a two-way channel, meaning consumers can reach its reporters directly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Our entire model is based on basically this question: What is the best way to get information to people that makes it equal in access, but also is the most high-value, high-quality information needed in order for people to rise from crisis to steadiness,” Fortman said.

3. Reflecting the communities they cover

Newsrooms are working to diversify their ranks, not just racially but also economically and linguistically. “Numbers can be tokenism,” the Republic’s Bui said. “I will fully admit, some newsroom survey was once like 7% of the newsroom is Asian management, and I was like literally that 7% is me,” Bui said with a dry chuckle. “Numbers can be configured to say whatever you want. It’s really about actions.”

The View From Here: Community Journalism in Phoenix

Nicole Carr, a reporter in ProPublica’s South newsroom, echoed Bui’s comments and said that diversifying newsroom leadership is a crucial step toward accomplishing objective and fair coverage. “When you’re talking about the lens of objectivity, we can’t have this conversation without addressing the people who call the shots,” said Carr, who previously worked as an investigative reporter for WSB-TV. “Take television, the people who make the decisions are not the people you see in front of you that the public thinks they know as representative of a particular outlet.”

“Collaboration is the future of journalism”

The events gave special attention to innovation and solutions. While the solutions varied, most of them viewed collaboration as a cornerstone to success. “Collaboration is the future of journalism,” Fortman said.

“We are in a very competitive business,” said Robin Kemp, the founder, CEO and executive editor of The Clayton Crescent, a one-woman newsroom just outside Atlanta, “but in Atlanta there is more of a conversation happening between outlets. I think the more we can leverage that given the huge disparities in coverage areas, resources, everything, the more we can do that, it really helps everybody out.”

Kemp, who has worked in print, broadcast, cable news and digital media, captured the nation’s attention last year during the presidential election for her coverage of the absentee ballot count in Clayton County, Georgia. She was the only journalist at the counting location for the entire count.

Nicole Avery Nichols, executive editor of Chalkbeat Detroit, suggested that part of collaboration is “holding each other accountable and making sure we are connected with our community and working on their behalf towards a public good.”

The events were sponsored by McKinsey & Company, which did not have a say in the topics covered or the speakers selected.